President Donald Trump’s latest attack on working families will hit especially hard in the states that voted for him: More than half of the people who are set to lose access to food stamps under regulations proposed this summer live in states that went for Trump in 2016.
One in every twelve people who receives food stamps nationwide will lose them under the policy — some 3.6 million people, according to new analysis by Mathematica, the private policy analysis firm the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has relied upon for the past 40 years.
“I was surprised by the extent of the impact in some of the southern states, such as Texas,” Mathematica senior research programmer Sarah Lauffer said. The impact was always going to be severe in states that apply the current rules in the most generous fashion, but southern states have generally not extended their eligibility lines quite as far. Despite that, Lauffer said, her team found “34% of elderly Texans receiving benefits will lose them through this rule.”
Almost 400,000 people in Texas currently receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would lose them. Another 328,000 in Florida, 200,000 in New York, 97,000 in Georgia, and 176,000 in Washington state face cuts, to name just a few standouts.
Almost one in five Wisconsin households currently getting help with their groceries will lose the benefit, as well as 16% of such households in Oregon, Nevada, Iowa, and Delaware. Two of every 13 SNAP households in Minnesota and Texas will have to find food money elsewhere.
The administration plans to slash benefits by ending a popular, bipartisan policy known as broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE). That policy protects low-wage workers from a quirk of poverty-assistance law known as the “benefits cliff,” whereby earning or saving slightly too much money can trigger a low-income family’s eviction from public assistance programs.
Ending the expanded eligibility system for SNAP will also boot roughly half a million kids out of free school meal programs nationwide. The administration has insisted those kids could all hop right back in by filling out application forms currently mooted by the BBCE system, but experts have warned it doesn’t necessarily work that way.
The administration forecasts a $10 billion total draw-down in SNAP spending over the next five years once the policy is enacted. It didn’t estimate the long-term costs of making families hungrier and more desperate.
“Allowing families whose gross income is a little over the poverty level to receive food assistance helps make sure that both the kids and adults in the family are able to eat,” said Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President at the poverty policy center No Kid Hungry. “Children that don’t get the nutrition that they need end up with worse health-care outcomes, worse physical and cognitive development, they have poorer outcomes in school, they find it harder to concentrate, they don’t do as well on tests, there are more behavioral issues.”
The administration has always known it would be yanking food assistance away from millions. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials said as much when they announced the new regulations in August.
“It doesn’t make any sense to us,” Food Research Action Center’s Ellen Vollinger said. “Taking food away from people is just going to make their food security situation worse, make them hungrier. It will have a negative effect on the economy at a time when some economists are warning us we would be in for another downturn.”
Non-profit groups across the country are dutifully filing public comments criticizing the rule and pointing out all the ways the USDA appears to have ignored evidence, congressional intent, and practical facts in issuing its proposal. The 60-day window for such comments closes later in the fall, and the administration will likely face legal challenges if it attempts to handle the objections with a pro-forma sweep of the hand.
But USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has been determined to kill BBCE for months, ever since Congress decided to retain the policy in last year’s Farm Bill. There’s a strong chance the cut – in some form – will have kicked in by this time next year.
These families earn a little more than the statutory maximum income for SNAP eligibility. But that doesn’t mean they can afford to see even the modest food assistance they currently receive disappear from their monthly budgets.
“They’re making trade-offs between what bills to pay. Do they pay the rent, or get a car fixed so they can keep going to work, or keep the lights on?” Davis said. “We see those families cut back on food first. [BBCE] helps make sure that both the kids and adults in the family are able to eat.”
Trump’s policies hit barely-red states hardest
As Thursday’s state-level figures suggest, the categorical eligibility smackdown is going to hit especially hard in four states where very narrow Trump wins in 2016 tilted the electoral college irrevocably in his favor.
Trump won Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes last time. He’ll have dumped 118,000 Wisconsin residents off of food stamps by Election Day if the rule goes through as planned.
One in every nine people currently benefiting from SNAP in Michigan will be booted under the rule – roughly 165,000 men, women, and children in total. Trump won the state by just 10,704 votes last go round.
In Pennsylvania, which Trump carried by just under 47,000 votes, his food stamps cut will dump more than five times that many people off the food-aid rolls.
The potential economic and electoral self-sabotage is particularly striking given that bipartisan majorities in Congress have repeatedly rejected this precise policy, as recently as last year. The right-wing crusade against broad-based categorical eligibility has never won a majority of Republican hearts and minds. Like the vast majority of voters who oppose cutting food stamps, the rump of GOP elected understand that BBCE is an effective investment in children’s long-term futures, local economies’ short-term health, and working families’ progress up the income ladder.
“For the most part the attacks on SNAP in recent years have not been successful. Congress has decided not to weaken snap in the 2018 farm bill, rejected multiple crazy assaults on it,” Vollinger said.
“We’re hopeful that there will be enough comment and insight brought to bear during this comment period that the administration would reconsider.”
Hunger’s ripple effect
It’s not just SNAP recipients who will feel the impact: The suffering the administration plans to inflict on working-poor families will likely also be felt in higher-income households, too, in the form of a broader economic slowdown. Consumer spending drives the whole economy. Cutting SNAP benefits means consumers have less to spend.
USDA staff issued updated estimates on the economic multiplier effects of SNAP spending earlier this summer. Though the Trump administration team’s official guesstimate is slightly lower than past multipliers, the report includes a variety of models. Each additional dollar of SNAP benefit paid out generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in total economic activity when the economy is struggling, their tables show.
The agency also broke the economic impacts out by sector, with some surprising results. The trade and transportation industry takes the largest hit from SNAP cuts. But across nine major industrial sectors the agency analyzed, the level of cuts to be imposed by the new eligibility restrictions stand to kill between 27,000 and 32,000 jobs per year over the next half-decade.
Forecasters who make their livings predicting what the economy will do next are already starting to worry that a nationwide recession looms. Multiple states have experienced recessions within their own borders in the past two years, and at least two appear to be on the brink of entering new contractions based on sudden jumps in local unemployment rates.
The national economy is still growing, but at a slower pace over the past two quarters than previously. The investor class is souring on long-term U.S. government bonds, producing the dreaded yet tediously named a “yield-curve inversion” – a phenomenon that does not guarantee a recession, but which has occurred prior to every U.S. recession in the last half-century.
The country’s manufacturing sector had been expanding for three straight years, but in August, it contracted – again, not a surefire sign of an overall downturn, but certainly an unhealthy indicator.
Presidents almost always get too much credit for good economies and too much blame for bad ones, as the financier and policy expert Barry Ritholtz noted in a recent column.
But Trump is doing more to actively poke the markets in the eye than your average president. And while the economist and investor classes grow alarmed about the sorts of sophisticated technical indicators that make the business pages, the administration is also planning to jab the working poor with a sharp stick.
Whether the SNAP cuts Trump seeks would help tip the country into a recession or not, they are certain to make life harder for people ill-positioned to absorb such a pinch. Presidents seeking re-election generally rise or fall with the health of the economy they’re credited – fairly or unfairly – with creating.